(The subject of this post is really nucleic acid nanotechnology, but Nuclear Nanotech is a much more arresting title. Heh-heh.)
From the beginning, CRN has been saying that nanotechnology will lead to 'molecular manufacturing', which is a kind of manufacturing that is:
- Nanoscale: able to build working devices just a few nanometers wide.
- Digital: atomically precise and reliable.
- Programmable and general-purpose: makes it easy to design a wide range of products.
- Autoproductive: can build its own manufacturing systems.
A technology with all these capabilities would create a manufacturing revolution.
In 1992, Eric Drexler published a detailed analysis of one technology that could achieve this: nanomachines built of diamond-like molecules. He calculated that diamondoid nanomachines could do mechanochemistry to build more diamondoid nanomachines. Although his work was rigorous and his calculations were conservative, many people refused to believe that such a thing was possible.
Now a second technology, from a completely different field, is starting to develop the same capabilities.
Nucleic acids are small molecules with several useful properties:
- There are only a few of them; they're easy to work with.
- They can easily be joined into chains, in a precise sequence (digtal control).
- With the right sequence, the chains will fold up on themselves or attach to each other in precise ways (programmable) and can make a variety of shapes (general-purpose). The variety can be increased by modifying the component molecules.
- The nucleic acids and their folds have a small, well-defined size (nanoscale).
- Methods of actuation are being developed. Nucleic acid chains should be able to grab and position each other (autoproductive).
This is important for at least two reasons. First, this new pathway is an independent demonstration that the basic goals behind molecular manufacturing are sound. Those who found it easy to dismiss Drexler's work before will now have to either dismiss this second independent body of work as well, or admit that there might be something to the whole idea. Second, even if a flaw does turn up in Drexler's ideas, the molecular manufacturing revolution can happen by this other pathway. It's worth noting that nucleic acids don't require mechanochemistry—they can be made in a test tube.
Nanomachines have four desirable properties: Strong, Swift, Small, and Stable. Diamondoid should be excellent on all four counts. Nucleic acids might be an order of magnitude worse than diamondoid on each count. But that is still many orders of magnitude ahead of today's technology! And nucleic acid nanobots should be very useful in building the first diamondoid factory, if that has not already been achieved.
In short, our predictions of a nanotech-driven manufacturing revolution are now much harder to argue with. And this means that CRN's policy work is even more urgently needed.
The next C-R-Newsletter will have an extended article on recent progress in nucleic acid engineering. Sign up now!